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Post-storm plumber shortage produces demand for rapid training programs

Monday, March 22, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Motivated by the high demand for plumbers brought on by last month’s severe winter storms, local job training organizations have increased their push to enroll students in a variety of skilled trades programs, including electrical and heating/ventilation/air conditioning.

Skilled plumbers were in short supply even before the storms caused widespread water line breaks, damaging homes and businesses and disrupting municipal water service for more than a week for some residents. With calls for plumbers reaching an even greater volume in recent weeks, groups such as Workforce Solutions Capital Area and Skillpoint Alliance are looking for enrollees for introductory courses that can lead to apprenticeship placement in four or five weeks.

“Even before the weather outages we could see we were going to have shortages, and one of those areas was skilled trades, so we set about working with the city and the county to address the people who have been impacted by Covid and get them back to work,” said Tamara Atkinson, CEO of Workforce Solutions Capital Area.

Her group’s RE:WorkNOW program includes skilled trades as one of its areas of focus – along with health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing – to meet the needs of local employers looking for workers. Atkinson anticipates a shortage in the Austin area of about 3,000 skilled trades workers over the next decade, with more than 1,000 plumbing jobs needing to be filled.

RE:WorkNOW was created as a rapid-placement program to link up to 260 potential workers with companies looking for talent, with the city and Travis County using $3.1 million in CARES Act money and general funds to fund it through September. With more federal stimulus money on the way, Atkinson said she and other Workforce Solutions leaders are in talks with city officials about additional funding to expand the program.

“Our model is to take someone who is out of work, rapidly engage them through enrollment in a program that the individual chooses, and then in a rapid, safe, virtual or hybrid environment provide up to five weeks of exposure in one of these areas. And then they’re hired by an employer who is hungry for the talent now and the individual grows their skill set while on the job and continuing to earn a paycheck,” she said.

“We believe we have a strong proof of concept through our work and think it would be a very wise investment to invest the stimulus dollars that are coming through the American Rescue Plan to continue to scale RE:WorkNOW. The city and county have invested in a brand recognition and with over 200 people enrolled we’ve definitely hit our stride so it can continue and scale as there are resources.”

At the nonprofit workforce training organization Skillpoint Alliance, a class to train 15 plumbers has been moved up to mid-April because of ongoing calls from plumbing and restoration companies seeking workers to repair storm damage.

Kevin Brackmeyer, executive director of Skillpoint, said plumbing and other skilled trades positions have been a consistent area of need since the organization was created in 1994 to help train area residents in stable, well-paying careers. Currently apprentice-level plumbers can earn $15 to $20 per hour, with annual earnings climbing to $50,000 or more by the end of a four-year training plan.

“Gotten lots of calls from companies in restoration services because they are in high need. Moved new class up to get folks trained because people are calling and looking for who we have getting trained. Once graduation hits, the plumbing companies will attend and interview them right there on the spot, and I’ve had employers in one case hire an entire class,” Brackmeyer said.

“There’s so much demand, I wish I had a class going on right now.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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